“Hush!” Worn Through’s Second Award Winner Explores the Art and Fashion of Late-Nineteenth Century Paris

This guest post comes courtesy of Heidi Brevik-Zender, one of the two recipients of Worn Through’s first research award. Heidi is Assistant Professor of French and Comparative Literature at UC Riverside where she directs the French Program. Her research interests are in French literature and culture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with an emphasis on the study of sartorial fashion, gender, aesthetics and issues of modernity. Publications include works on literary and pictorial representations of fashion in works by Zola, Maupassant, and Rachilde; films by Sofia Coppola and Catherine Breillat; and the television series Mad Men.

The deadline for Worn Through’s second annual research award has been announced. Please check here for details on the award and selection process. 

I was delighted to be named co-winner (with Elizabeth Way) of the inaugural Worn Through Research Award.  The award was used to offset reproduction fees for an image that will be included in my book entitled Fashioning Spaces: Mode and Modernity in Late-Nineteenth-Century Paris. The book will be available from University of Toronto Press in 2014.

Fashioning Spaces studies literature, paintings, and period garments produced in Paris from 1870 to 1900. It argues that the chroniclers of Parisian modernity – writers like Emile Zola and Guy de Maupassant as well as artists like Edgar Degas and Gustave Caillebotte – depicted key moments of fashion not exclusively in public settings but rather in intermediate locations where the exterior and spectacular meet interiority and intimacy. How does this point of view represent a new way to think about cities and fashion and how the two are connected?

To work toward an answer we might start by thinking about fashionable areas of Paris in the late nineteenth century. Our thoughts likely go to boulevards, parks, theaters, department stores, modern wrought-iron buildings, and racetracks. Studying fashion’s role in these locations makes sense, because during this period this is where people went wearing their finest garments, to view how others wore their wealth, class, and expressed themselves through clothing while simultaneously finding an audience for their own sartorial display. We associate wide avenues, manicured city gardens, and cosmopolitan train stations with Parisian modernity in part through our exposure to them in well-known paintings by Impressionists, such as Degas, Claude Monet, Mary Cassatt, or Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Also, many of these spectacular locations, such as the Tuileries gardens, the Garnier opera house, and, of course, the Eiffel Tower, still exist in the French capital today.

However, what I uncovered in my research is that, especially in literature but also in visual art, those authors and artists who were living in Paris in the late decades of the nineteenth century were actually quite concerned with other kinds of spaces, including more private, liminal and sometimes difficult to define areas of the cityscape. In fact, there was such an abundance of these locations in novels, short stories, and images that I decided to focus on a manageable cross section of them. I chose the three spaces that I thought were the most compelling, which were staircases, waiting rooms, and fashion ateliers.

This brings us to the Worn Through Research award. The image in my book that the award has funded is the painting Hush! by the French painter James Tissot:

tissot brevik-zender

Hush! (1875), James Tissot (1836-1902),
 Oil on canvas

Manchester Art Gallery

I selected Tissot’s painting Hush! for the first image in my book because I think it has interesting things to say about relationships between fashion and space in this period. As we can see, clothing is clearly one of the most important features of this stylish late-century salon. As viewers, our attention might first be drawn to the bright yellow-and-white gown of the violinist in the heart of the composition, or perhaps to the massive fan and flounced layers of the skirt worn by the women in the left foreground. The black tulle of the central figure spills dramatically across the floor, and the vaguely Eastern “Oriental” garments worn by the male spectators in the back right provide the touch of exoticism that was so in vogue in nineteenth-century Europe. Initially we sense that the main salon is where all of the fashion “action” is taking place; here, the well dressed have come to see and be seen in their most eye-catching outfits.

And yet, there is another space of interest in the painting. In Fashioning Spaces I call attention to the upper-left section of the composition, which depicts a staircase filled with overflow concertgoers. The staircase seems to be outside the setting of the painting – literally in another room – but it is also connected to the concert space through echoes in clothing items that lead us out the doorway and up the curve of the ornate iron banister.  Once we are aware of them, the elegantly dressed spectators located in the stairwell might capture our interest even more than the audience in the salon. They represent subversions of proper bourgeois behavior through their flaunting of rules – they sit on stairs, not chairs! They are seen but not completely knowable, in view but just beyond the sanctioned space of the concert room. Concentrating on the staircase couple on the furthest left, we wonder what they might be saying to one other, just out of earshot. The painting’s intrigue is as much on the staircase as it is in the “main” space of the composition.

Fashioning Spaces is about focusing on unexpected intersections of space and fashion such as those in Tissot’s canvas. I examine tensions surrounding gender expression in literature by the female writer Rachilde, an author who created scandalous cross-dressing heroines, emancipated bloomer-wearing New Women, and sharply tailored women horse-riders known as amazones. The book studies the surprising subtext of national trauma in Emile Zola’s department-store novel Au Bonheur des dames and issues of class represented by the chic social climbers in Guy de Maupassant’s short stories and novel Bel-Ami. Alongside paintings, such as those depicting powerful and elegant dandies by Gustave Caillebotte, I include analyses of period garments, like the robe à transformation, a dress style that grew to heights of popularity in the nineteenth century because it accorded women a measure of flexibility by allowing them to change from daytime dress to eveningwear in record time.

It is an exciting time to be working on nineteenth-century French fashion because a great deal of insightful scholarship from a variety of academic disciplines has appeared in recent years. Here are some of the books that have been most useful to me, listed in chronological order starting with the newest titles:

Having It All in the Belle Epoque: How French Women’s Magazines Invented the Modern Woman by Rachel Mesch (Stanford University Press, 2013) http://www.sup.org/book.cgi?id=22400

Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity edited by Gloria Groom (Yale University Press, 2012) http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300184518

Changing France: Literature and Material Culture in the Second Empire by Anne Green (Anthem Press, 2011) http://www.anthempress.com/changing-france-pb

Accessories to Modernity: Fashion and the Feminine in Nineteenth-Century France by Susan Hiner (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010) http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/14733.html

The Places and Spaces of Fashion, 1800-1907 edited by John Potvin (New York: Routledge, 2009) http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415873826/

Classic Chic: Music, Fashion and Modernism by Mary E. Davis (University of California Press, 2008) http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520256217

Sheer Presence: The Veil in Manet’s Paris by Marni Reva Kessler (University of Minnesota Press, 2006) http://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/sheer-presence

 Couture Culture: A Study in Modern Art and Fashion by Nancy J. Troy (The MIT Press, 2002) http://mitpress2.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=9101

Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity by Ulrich Lehmann (The MIT Press, 2000) http://mitpress2.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=4261

Two classic studies include:

Paris Fashion: A Cultural History by Valerie Steele (Oxford University Press, 1988; reprinted by Berg in 1998 and 2006)

Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity by Elizabeth Wilson (Virago Press, 1985; reprinted by I.B. Tauris in 2003 and 2005)


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